When less really is more

by Lou Smyrlis

If you, like me, had a great Thanksgiving long weekend and returned to work feeling more refreshed because of it, take the next step and ask yourself this question: Why are three-day weekends the exception rather than the rule?

That may be a controversial question in an industry where 50- and 60-hour work weeks seem to have become the norm for many of those with desk jobs. (We usually focus on the long hours put in by drivers, neglecting to appreciate the hours put in by those working in the office). It’s a controversial question in an industry where work hours have grown longer as staff sizes have become thinner. But it’s a question worth asking.

Decades of research shows that those long hours spent behind the desk present a ticking time bomb for your heart. Recently, The Lancet, a highly respected medical publication, published a meta analysis – essentially a study of studies – that examined the link between heart disease and overwork in more than 600,000 American, European, and Australian men and women. It found that employees working long hours – defined as 55 or more per week – had a 33% increased risk of stroke than people who worked less than 40 hours per week. The overworked employees also had a 13% greater risk of developing heart disease than their peers who worked fewer hours.  Those working more than 55 hours per week also got less sleep and had a harder time falling asleep, and were less likely to wake up feeling refreshed, which, of course, further contributed to how tired they were feeling.

Overworked people, operating on lower energy levels, are also found to be less likely to properly read the emotional signals and cues given by their co-workers. In other words, tired people are more likely to end up in office arguments.

Research shows that those working longer hours need more time to recover from their work than employees with workdays of normal length.

The first opposition to suggestions of a shorter work week is obvious: In an industry as fast-paced as trucking we can barely manage to get all that needs to get done in a five-day week, how could we possibly manage to do so in a four-day week? Yet the paradox is that a shorter work week actually increases employee output. And this is something we’ve known for about 200 years. In the 19th century, when factory owners were compelled to limit workdays to 10 and then eight hours, management was surprised to find that output actually increased and accidents decreased.

In 2009, Harvard Business School researchers studied the impact on a group of employees from a busy Boston consulting firm who were asked to take a day off in the middle of the week – no checking e-mail, no checking in was allowed. The experiment went on for five months. The end result? The firm’s clients reported an improvement in service from the teams who took the time off compared to the performance of the employees working their usual 50-plus hours per week. 

And you may be surprised to find – as I was – that three-day weekends are already becoming common in business. A recent report from the Families and Work Institute noted that 43% of the 1,051 American employers surveyed were already offering compressed workweeks to at least some of their employees. More research is required on the impact of a shorter work week but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that, as the Chinese proverb says, sometimes less is more. 

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